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Thursday, 13 January, 2000, 16:01 GMT
Strikes Ó la Franšaise

Going nowhere fast
By Jon Sopel in Paris

Erik Fiolet doesn't conform to your average picture of a striker. He owns his own haulage company, speaks perfect English, but there he was with his fleet of lorries blockading the motorway outside Calais, halting the movement of freight.

Chubby and smartly-dressed, he and his fellow owners are unhappy that the 35-hour week which the French Government has just introduced will put them at a competitive disadvantage with their European counterparts.

And so there was the bizarre position of the hauliers employing their drivers to form a blockade across the motorway while they parked their Mercedes, Alfa Romeos and BMWs in the lay-by, on hand to explain to the media why they were holding this demonstration.

Demos for all

In France anyone and everyone is prepared to demonstrate. Just before Christmas I'd phoned home to be told that my daughter's school had cancelled all activities because the firefighters had downed hoses for the day.

In fact they had done more than that. They had blocked roads with their fire engines and were setting light to barricades.

It was as though two obscure tribes of George Lucas's imagination had come together for one of the big fight scenes

The scene in the Champ de Mars, the stretch of elegant gardens that runs from the Eiffel Tower to the military training academy, was like something out of star wars. The firemen in their flame-proof suits and their distinguishing silver helmets were locked in a pitched battle with police in their riot uniforms and crash helmets.

It was as though two obscure tribes of George Lucas's imagination had come together for one of the big fight scenes.

And so it goes on. There have been so many strikes of late that in the weekend papers, just as they give you details of where the worst roadworks are, where a lane is closed or a contraflow in operation, so you get a run down of which "manifestations" are being held that day.

For anyone thinking of coming to France to work as a journalist, learn the word "manifestation", meaning demonstration - you'll need it a lot.

They take on unlikely forms. There were the chefs who protesting in their white aprons and chef's hats outside the National Assembly started throwing eggs and cakes at the police. They were protesting at taxes on take away foods that put them at a competitive disadvantage to fast food outlets. They were tear-gassed.

Long tradition of taking action

There have been demonstrations by doctors, dentists and chiropodists over the size of the health budget - and no, the newspapers don't resort to headlines like "Dentists bear their teeth" or "Chiropodists on the march". Strikes and protests are taken seriously, each has its own character and there is no group in society which isn't prepared to take industrial action.

My favourite strike

Which brings me to my favourite strike, if you can have such a thing. It was just after we had moved to Paris. We made our way to the international client section of the Societe Generale to open a bank account. We had the children in tow on a stiflingly hot day. Parking was a nightmare.

Eventually we got to the bank's prestigious offices at the back of Opera on Boulevard Haussman only to find that the bankers had gone on strike that morning. It was a Friday.

Needless to say there was a manifestation to accompany the strike, and there in the centre of Paris were these immaculately groomed bankers brandishing placards demanding government intervention.

There he was on the picket line with an army of others in their Hermes ties, carrying their Louis Vuitton overnight bags, all ready to go off to the country for 'le weekend'

One of the leaders of the staff association is Yves Touloup, the head of international markets. On a pay package that colleagues estimate to be in the region of half a million a year, he flies his own plane, goes to Glyndebourne each year and is an all round bon vivant.

But there he was on the picket line with an army of others in their Hermes ties, carrying their Louis Vuitton overnight bags, all ready to go off to the country for "le weekend" once the strike was over.

All of which could paint a picture of society teetering on the edge of breakdown, a long dark winter of discontent with Paris and other cities in a state of more or less total paralysis.

Yes there are occasions when a transport strike really does bite, but more often than not the people get on with their lives and work round the strikers. What it reflects is a distinctly different political culture.

As France prepares to introduce its radical proposals to reduce the working week to 35 hours, so every group of workers - even the bosses - have been staging demonstrations to express anxieties over this or that part of the legislation.

In Britain recently, the poor turnout in the European elections was explained away somewhat complacently as the culture of contentment.

It would be wrong to paint France as a society seething with discontent, what they have instead is a culture of participation and involvement. But that of course means you get perhaps more than your fair share of strikes, occasionally maddening, often disruptive and invariably well organised, but rarely complacent.

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See also:

12 Jan 00 | Europe
French truckers end blockades
11 Jan 00 | Europe
French hauliers dig heels in
10 Jan 00 | Europe
French truckers begin blockade
26 Oct 99 | Europe
French farmers blockade ports
08 Sep 98 | Europe
Truckers start Europe-wide strike
08 Sep 98 | Europe
The view from the blockades
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